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College rugby fans have a treat on their hands this weekend, as four of the top teams in the nation play in two games.
As already previewed on RUGBYMag.com, Arkansas State travels to Life University in a showdown of #3 at #4. This is a huge game in the D1-A Mid-South, as the home-and-away series between the two will decide the conference winner.
Then in Provo, Utah, #1 BYU will host #2 St. Mary’s in a friendly.
(Not ranked in D1-A right now are Cal, who would probably rank in the top five, perhaps as high as #2; Cal pulled out of the D1-A in December and is playing an independent schedule.)
The Gaels v. Cougars clash is one that will likely be decided in the front row. The teams may well have the two best front threes in the business. BYU comes at you with the enormous, and surpisingly spry, Mikey Su’a, and the imposing Ray Forrester as props, and Ishmael Tilialo at hooker. St. Mary’s counters with a slightly smaller, but very strong and technically sound front three of Matt Crawford, Jordan Bouey and Andrew Cook.
Cook, who captains St. Mary’s, may well be the best hooker in college rugby – if not, he’s close, and his work rate and leadership are a big part of the success St. Mary’s has enjoyed.
BYU captain Ryan Roundy is growing into his role as leader, and his go-forward mentality is square one for the Cougars.
"It should be a great game," BYU Head Coach David Smyth said. "St Mary’s is an excellent team. I’m an admirer of the way they play good positive rugby. We’ll have to be at our very best, to keep up with them. It’s going to be a huge challenge but one that we’re really looking forward to."
St. Mary’s has been hit with injuries, but continues to win, in part because the coaching staff and the team leadership just won’t accept the loss of a player as an excuse to give up the ship.
“We will be digging deeper into the well again when we play BYU,” said Head Coach Tim O’Brien. “We’re going to go with whoever we got on a given day and with some teams we’ll match up well, some we’ll overmatch, and in some games, well, we’ll see.”
For BYU their strength has been in their forwards. That’s not to say their backs aren’t excellent, because they are, but BYU get’s set piece ball, go-forward from the breakdown, and will throttle you up front. They will find that St. Mary’s will not wilt in the fact of such an onslaught, and in fact will relish the physical battle.
The scrums alone will be worth the price of admission at South Field a the BYU camps (kickoff noon, by the way). Both teams are used to dominating in that area, so the confrontation there will be massive.
If BYU can handle being smacked in the face a bit up front, they do have an excellent backline, with Shaun Davies back from injury to patrol scrum half and kick goals, they have a longtime halfback combination of Davies and Dylan Lubbe that knows how to play together. Hoseki Kofe and Paul Lasike may be the best center combination in the game.
For St. Mary’s, a team used to creating tries out of nowhere, and a team that is deadly in broken play, they will find that BYU can handle that game, too – they are rivals with Utah, after all. Their back three of Tim Maupin, Cooper Maloney or Dylan Wilson, and especially Kinsgley McGowan at fullback are fast, daring, and intelligent. Their midfield of Michael Haley and Augie Heath can play, too.
It seems as if wherever you look – BYU’s second row, St. Mary’s in the back row, the BYU midfield, St Mary’s in broken play – you find a strength that the other team is in perfect position to counter.
This could be a 45-42 game, or it could end up being 15-14; it depends on the referee, the weather, and the defenses. But either way, this game promises to be one of the most exciting of the year.